Archive 81 Review: Building A Mystery
Before I committed fully to murder podcasts, I used to listen to fiction-based shows. You know, the ones that are basically like 40s radio dramas, because time is a flat circle. This is all to say that I have a vague memory of listening to at least one episode of the podcast that inspired Netflix’s newest series. You need not have heard the Archive 81 podcast to follow along with the show, of course. It might help, though, because this series is dense, as I’ll discuss in my review of Archive 81, the TV show now on Netflix.
Wait, Tell Me More About TV Shows Based on Podcasts
Well, I’ve already done that at least twice. But sure, I love to repeat myself. Anyway, Archive 81 is far from the first podcast to get the TV show adaptation treatment. Recently, for example, The Shrink Next Door made its debut on Apple TV+. Like Dirty John, which aired seasons on Bravo and then USA, and Peacock’s Dr. Death, it’s a fictionalized account of a true story.
image via Netflix
However, it’s just as common for fictional podcasts to make their way into TV. Amazon Prime Video aired an adaptation of Homecoming, which starred Julia Roberts. (The second season, which starred Janelle Monáe, is a new story based on the same elements as the podcast/first season.) In addition, Jessica Biel fronted an adaptation of Limetown for Facebook Watch, a thing that existed. It feels like every time I turn around, another podcast becomes a TV show. And now there’s this.
But What Happened to the Other 80 Archives?
Archive 81 starts out with a fairly basic premise. Dan Turner (Mamadou Athie) works at a museum, specializing in video restoration. One day, his boss gives him a rush order for a single tape from a donor. Dan restores the video, the client is happy, and Dan lives happily ever after.
image via Netflix
Well, it’s nice to hope. Dan does restore the video, which does make the client happy. So happy, in fact, that they want to thank him in person. Dan meets with Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan) of LMG, a business whose exact purpose is shrouded in mystery. Davenport explains that the first video was a kind of audition, as well as just one of a set. Pleased by Dan’s work, Davenport wants him to restore the entire collection.
The meeting unnerves Dan, because Davenport knows about Dan’s history. His family died in a fire when Dan was young. Dan only survived because he was out walking the dog when the fire broke out. He declines the offer at first, but ultimately agrees. This sees him holing up at LMG’s isolated facility in the Catskills, because Davenport says the tapes can’t be moved.
But what’s on them? They’re records of the Visser apartment building, which also went up in flames. Grad student Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) is working on a dissertation that involves the building. The tapes document her move into the building, where she plans to film her interactions with the residents.
If you’re like me, then you’re already confused. Typically, this kind of project aims to answer a question or examine a phenomenon. But Melody’s stated aims–talking to people about their history with the building–don’t really seem like fodder for academia. In other words, she might have ulterior motives.
However, her research methods are a bit irrelevant at the time the show begins. What’s more important is what her tapes reveal. As Dan starts to piece them together, he finds Melody go from eager to unsettled to downright terrified. But the tapes hold even bigger secrets than whatever got to Melody, and Dan will spend the season uncovering them.
Archive 81 on Netflix Review
From the beginning, the show creates a compelling mystery. You’ll wonder why exactly Melody was interested in this seemingly average building, for instance. You’ll also want to know Dan’s connection to the tapes. He begins to see ties right away, but a previous reference to his struggles with mental illness may influence you to see him as unreliable.
This slots in nicely with the way that things at the Visser stay just on the edge of plausibility. For example, the residents and staff Melody meets are just off enough to make you suspicious. Are they up to something or is Melody just creating drama where none exists? (Like Dan, Melody has a rocky past.)
image via Netflix
Further, the mysteries the show presents are in keeping with its influences, which it wears on its sleeve. The found footage angle will obviously make you think of the greats in the genre, like Blair Witch or The Ring. Centering much of the action on an apartment might also make you think of REC. However, it’s hard to watch a spooky story set in a New York City apartment building and not have it remind you of Rosemary’s Baby.
The show integrates these influences well, presenting them more as fun Easter eggs, rather than “Hey, remember this thing?!” This, of course, is in keeping with the overarching story, which is ultimately a testament to the power of movies. As I’ve mentioned before, I do love a cursed movie story, and you can’t get more cursed than these tapes. Even before the catastrophic fire, they reveal a world of darkness.
If there is a flaw in this show, however, then it would be the kitchen sink approach to that darkness. I’m sidestepping the details to avoid major spoilers, but let’s just say there is a lot going on at the Visser. (Tick tock, it’s cult o’clock.) It can get overwhelming, and it’s one of the things that dulls the potential for scares. There’s also the disappointment of the season ending with still more questions, whose answers will have to wait for another season. Still, though, strong performances by Athie and Shihabi, as well as a mostly riveting storyline, anchor the madness. Or at least, long enough to keep viewers watching those tapes.
Archive 81 the show is now available on Netflix, You Can Find the Podcast Wherever You Find Podcasts.
And as always, let us know what you think of our Archive 81 on Netflix review by commenting here or on our social media.
featured image via Netflix
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at [email protected]